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In ACC men's soccer quarterfinal loss to Clemson, Duke's greatest strength became its tallest obstacle

In the ACC tournament quarterfinal, the Blue Devils needed more than just defensive strength to win.
In the ACC tournament quarterfinal, the Blue Devils needed more than just defensive strength to win.

Defense wins you leagues. Offense wins you championships.

In its 2-0 Sunday night defeat at the hands of No. 8-seed Clemson in the ACC tournament quarterfinal, No. 1-seed Duke found that out the hard way.

Throughout this season, it’s become somewhat redundant to talk about the Blue Devils’ remarkable defensive record because it has been, well, remarkable. Five goals conceded in 15 regular season games is a stat even Europe’s most accomplished and wealthiest professional sides would envy.

Like Switzerland’s approach to national security in World War II, Duke’s defense has far and away been its best offense. Who needs weapons when every bridge is rigged with explosives and the Alps are the border? In the same vein, who needs a prolific, ruthless goalscorer when there is a two-thirds-or-better chance that the team keeps a clean sheet anyway?

This is a flawed argument for many reasons, none more so than the obvious counterpoint that offense equals goals and goals equal wins. To the Blue Devils’ credit, they have done enough this season to negate this idea and finish unbeaten for the first time in 42 years. But when they were tested with an unstoppable force dead-set on launching the ball—14 times, to be exact—into the net from close and afar, their greatest strength became their ultimate Achilles heel. Bulletproof glass can only sustain so many shots before it shatters.

Duke withstood Clemson’s barrage for over 70 minutes of game time before it cracked. Against the reigning national champions and a team known for its rapid pace of play, this can hardly be called shameful, and the Blue Devil defense should assume little blame for either of the goals it conceded. The first was an unstoppable rocket from close range and the second a skillful tap-in with a minute to go. 

“You've got to play for 90 minutes,” Clemson head coach Mike Noonan said after the game. “We played right to the last whistle, and sooner or later, [the Blue Devils] were gonna break down. We put them under enough pressure.”

Nonetheless, Sunday’s hiccup rested not on the shoulders of its young backline pairing of Axel Gudbjornsson and Kamran Acito, but on the clunkier-than-normal showing it displayed on the other half of the pitch. Shakur Mohammed’s mercurial brilliance was quieted by a suffocating display by the Tigers’ towering center backs; Peter Stroud’s charging runs were halted by Clemson’s control of the midfield; and Amir Daley’s excellent crossing ability from the wing was bravely collected by the keeper throughout.

“We need to do better, I mean, we need to score a goal,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “Normally we do, we finish off our chances. But tonight, we were just inches away, and that's soccer for you. It doesn't always go your way.”

Duke’s defense has been remarkable, but its unbeaten regular season can equally be attributed to the prolific finishing of its forward line. Mohammed’s nine goals is an impressive mark for any attacker, even more so for a player that found his claim to fame out wide. The offseason departure of 2021’s ACC goals leader Thorleifur Ulfarsson to the MLS left this group without a target man, but by and large, this has not been a problem because of how ruthlessly the rest of the group has shot in his stead.

The result? 11 wins, four draws and an ACC Coastal division title.

With the NCAA tournament beckoning and the entire landscape of college soccer lying in wait, Sunday made clear that both an excellent defense and punishing offense are paramount to postseason glory. That seems obvious, but between the records the Blue Devils set this season because of their unmatched ability to lock up shop, it sometimes felt like the offense fell to the backburner.

Duke has justifiably been on cloud nine since its victory against Virginia Tech last weekend, but Sunday served to inject a little dose of reality. The Blue Devils are fully capable of rebounding, finding more offensive fluidity and making a deep postseason run. To do so, they need to synchronize their strength at the back with increased decisiveness in the final third.

“I think we're going to learn a lot from this game,” Kerr said. “I feel that we're going to go from strength to strength. We have a little time off now to get ready for the NCAAs and we look forward to that challenge.”

Defense wins leagues and offense wins championships; Duke accomplished the first, it fell prey to the second. There exists both the time and the personnel for the Blue Devils to rectify that, and if all goes according to plan, Sunday’s defeat will be a cause for improvement, not an indictment of stagnation.


Andrew Long | Blue Zone editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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